Advice between chronic illness folks

October 16, 2019

I don’t know about you, but it took me a looooong time to figure out how to handle flares. The truth is, I’m still learning. But over time, thankfully, I have found some things that help. Sometimes I take the learning process for granted; after all, I have had symptoms for almost 30 years now. A phone call a few nights ago changed that.

A friend was in the middle of a flare, and having a rough time. They were dealing with both the horrible physical symptoms as well as the emotional fallout of having to miss a much-anticipated event that night. There was also the all-too-common self-recrimination, wondering what they did to cause this. Maybe they should have done less the previous week when they felt so good. Maybe they should have rested more. Maybe maybe maybe.

I’m the queen of “what ifs” so I really get that. I do that to myself all the time, as much as I try not to. I’m getting better, but it’s still a struggle. This time, though, it was someone else who was struggling, so I was able to step outside of my own issues and help them.

My friend was only diagnosed last year, which really isn’t that long ago. It takes a long time to learn how to handle chronic illness. I wish I had had someone to guide me, but unfortunately, there was no one in my life at the time with that kind of experience. Now, I am glad I can be that person for others.

First, I talked my friend out of the emotional spiral. Sometimes our bodies are going to flare, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Maybe they did overdo it, but there was no way to know in advance. And maybe they didn’t overdo it, and there’s no way to know that, either. Maybe they could have done less last week, and they still would have had the flare, right? The weather was terrible; not only are we going through a seasonal change, but it was a very stormy day. There’s a good chance the weather was at fault more than anything, and what can anyone possibly do about that? Besides, once you’re in a flare, blaming yourself won’t help at all. And as much as we think we can figure out the cause and prevent the next flare, we can’t. Ok, sometimes we can, but to think we can do that every time is just unrealistic. That would imply there’s a way to prevent ever having a flare again, and we know that isn’t true. We only wish it were.

Once my friend was feeling a bit better emotionally, we talked about how to handle the current situation. I suggested some fun tv shows to watch, etc. But here’s where we get to the part I most want to share with you. Without thinking much of it, I mentioned some things I do that my friend thought was brilliant and it got me thinking, maybe not everyone does this? So let’s share our tips!

I know I will have more bad days. I don’t want them, but they are inevitable. So I prepare for them. Just like I have bandaids at home for the inevitable future cut or scrape, and acetaminophen for the inevitable future headache or fever, I also keep things around for future flares. Here’s a short list:

  • Fun, lighthearted movies saved on my Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts, plus a few old dvds.
  • Easy to watch tv series saved on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
  • Chocolate and other comfort food.
  • Frozen leftovers of healthy meals I have previously made.
  • Low-energy hobbies on hand. For me, this is currently knitting and crochet, which I enjoy on all but my worst days. I also like to read and listen to audiobooks when I feel up to it.

These work for me, but you will have your own items. On top of this, several years back I read a tip on Chronic Babe to make a list of things to do during a flare, since we can’t always remember these things when we’re dealing with tough symptoms. One problem I have found is that when I feel especially bad, I don’t even think to look at the list! So I recommended that my friend make a list, and tell several close friends and family members about it – anyone who they might talk to during a flare. That way, their friends and family can remind them to check their flare list, where they will find a list of things to do and ways to think.

My current list has fewer items like the ones above, which have become second nature at this point, and more items around my thought process, mostly recommended by my therapist. These help me to stop blaming myself or assuming things will get exponentially worse. I keep the list in the Google Keep app on my phone, so it’s always handy. Even if I don’t have the energy or am in too much pain to cross the room to my desk, I always have my phone on me. That’s key – keep your list where you can easily find it when you need it. Keeping it at the bottom of a heavy box on a high shelf is definitely not the most useful place for it!

It sucks, but we all know that we will have bad days, so we might as well prepare for them when we’re feeling ok. What do you to to prepare for the bad days? Do you have a flare list? What’s on it? Please share in the comments, because I’m certain you will have ideas that I and others haven’t thought of, and we all need to learn from each other!


Yes, it’s a choice

June 11, 2019

One thing my therapist is helping me realize is that many of the things I do for my health are actually choices on my part. I often feel trapped, like I have no options, but that’s actually not true.

Take the party I went to recently. I put on my sexy new dress: tight, red, showing cleavage, and making me look hot. This is the sexiest dress I’ve owned, and I didn’t want to ruin the effect by wearing my big, bulky knee braces. So I made a choice: I didn’t wear them.

2019-06-11 13.02.32

The dress I wore with the knee braces I didn’t

I wear those knee braces every time I leave the house, but since I knew I wouldn’t be doing much walking, what if this time I didn’t? What’s the worst that would happen?

Well, long term I could do permanent damage by wearing away cartilage, but that wouldn’t be an issue for one evening. I would be in pain, but maybe that would be ok? I know the pain, and it would be manageable. I should still be able to drive home, which is the deal-breaker for me.

So I did it. I brought the braces with me, just in case, but I left them in the car. I wore cute sandals with my orthodics in them. The dress calls for heels, but I knew that level of pain wouldn’t be worthwhile. I’m better off in sneakers, but really didn’t want to do that. I wanted to look good, damn it!

I was in a lot of pain for the first part of the party. Eventually, though, I found a good balance between sitting and standing. It meant sometimes sitting when I would rather stand, but that happens a lot even when I wear the knee braces.

But it also meant that I felt good about the way I looked. I kept forgetting that I was “passing” as healthy, so when I asked a guy out on a date and he said yes, he didn’t know about my health issues. When I showed up to our date in a cute dress and knee braces, I had to explain. I wasn’t doing it to pass, though. I wasn’t trying to hide my health problems. No, I was simply trying to look good in my new dress. And what’s so bad about that?

It is a privilege that I was able to make that choice. I know that some day I might not be able to. But somewhere in the midst of everything, I realized something important: I wasn’t simply choosing to not wear my knee braces. I was choosing to boost my emotional health at the cost of my physical health. That was the true choice that I made.

Within two days my knee pain levels had returned to normal, but the memory of how I felt all dressed up has stayed with me. It’s spring now, and even though I wear skirts and dresses almost every day, I will be wearing my knee braces whenever I go out. That, too, is a choice that I am making. The thing I have to remember, though, is that it is a choice. I am choosing whether or not to do the thing that is best for my physical health. And occasionally, it best not to do that thing, and to give my mental health a boost instead.


Between a rock and an iron infusion

March 12, 2019

I feel so stuck, and I can’t get this out of my head.

It’s pretty apt, as you’ll see.

I have been anemic for ages, but mostly it was ignored. Whenever I tried taking iron supplements they made me sick, and eating iron-rich foods didn’t help, so instead I did nothing. After all, most of my iron tests were fine, it was only my ferritin that was low, and that wasn’t a problem, right?

Then back in 2012 I started doing my own research into why I was so sick and I found all sorts of useful answers. I would be so much sicker without that research (shout out to public libraries!) Among other things, I learned that low iron levels would impede my thyroid improvement via medication, so I had to address it. My regular doctors weren’t helpful, but I managed to see a hematologist in 2013. He prescribed iron infusions and those more than did the trick – my ferritin levels went through the roof.

Over the past six years my ferritin levels have slowly come back down to within the normal range, then lower within that range, until finally 10 months ago I became anemic again. Oy.

I put off dealing with it while I managed some other health issues, but finally I took iron supplements that my naturopath recommended as being especially easy on the stomach. We started out with 1/2 the normal dose. At first I felt ok, so I figured there was no problem. But after weeks of feeling sicker than usual, I finally realized the problem had to be those iron supplements. Within a few days of stopping them I felt a lot better, but I had lingering symptoms for another month and a half.

After that experience, I didn’t want to try iron supplements again. My naturopath suggested taking an even smaller dose, but I had been so sick for so long that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Some folks recommended cooking with cast iron pans, but they’re too heavy for me to lift. A friend found something called Lucky Iron Fish and I actually bought one. It’s like cast iron pans, but you boil it in water and then drink the water to get the iron off of it. I chickened out and it’s been sitting in a drawer for months. I don’t want to risk getting so sick again.

But I have to do something. That’s the problem. I made an appointment months ago with a new hematologist, and it’s finally coming up next week. I made the appointment with the idea that I would get iron infusions again but now that the time is here, I’m hesitant. What if the infusions make me really sick? Back in 2013 I don’t know how they made me feel. I was doing so poorly that it was impossible to tell. I had only started seeing my naturopath two months before, had just being adrenal supplements, and hadn’t even started natural dessicated thyroid as my new medication yet.

Now I am in a better place. Overall I feel hugely better compared to where I was in 2013. On the other hand, I’m still struggling every day, and the tiniest thing can make me feel like crap for weeks or months; like those iron supplements I took last fall. So I want to risk a major setback? And unlike supplements, I can’t change my mind and stop. Once I have an infusion, that stuff is in my body.

And what’s in the infusion besides iron? Chemicals? Additives? Other things that could make me ill? I already have a long list of things my body reacts badly to: everything from the dye used in brain MRIs to lavender, corn, various medications, gluten, the pesticides on apples, broccoli, and so much more. And those are only some of the things I’m aware of. I have been thinking lately that there are probably more things I am reacting to. What if some of those things are in the infusion?

So I’m rightly scared and I don’t know what to do. I’m hoping the hematologist has some brilliant idea that I’m currently unaware of, but otherwise, I’ll have to make a tough decision soon. Should I risk the infusion? Try the iron fish? Remain anemic?

For anyone who has dealt with iron infusions, I would love to know what you think! Making medical decisions is often hard, so this is nothing new, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about it. Because no matter which option I choose, I know it could potentially be very bad.


Getting back to “normal” – whatever that is

October 15, 2018

I’ve missed you! This blog is one of many things that seemed to fall to the side as I struggled to keep up with the million and one medical appointments I had over the last month and a half. I kept wanting to write, but just couldn’t manage to pull myself together enough.

For weeks it felt like all I did was go to appointments. “What day is it? Well, I’m at occupational therapy right now so it must be Tuesday.” When you keep track of the days by thinking about what appointment you’re at, things have gone too far.

Thankfully, things began to slow down a bit 2 weeks ago. Unfortunately, right around that time I was feeling really fatigued. It made sense, given the physical and emotional stress of all of those medical appointments, right? Plus we were having unseasonably humid weather. I took more supplements. I pushed through.

It got worse.

I rested more. Watched tv. Read books. Let my chores wait and cancelled plans I had been looking forward to. I spent my time resting whenever I wasn’t at an appointment. It still got worse, and my stomach started to act up, too.

I thought about my diet. Had I eaten anything new lately? Some apples. But I made sure they were organic (a few autumns ago my stomach acted up and I learned it was the pesticides on the apples.) And I had only eaten 4 apples so far this season. I couldn’t think of anything else until a few days later when I was literally doubled over in pain, barely able to even walk from my couch to the bathroom. And then it hit me all at once: iron. I had started taking iron supplements.

The next day I stopped taking the iron* and by that night, I was doing a bit better. The next day felt even better than that. And now 4 days later, I feel back to normal! Whatever the hell that is.

I’m still tired. I’m in more pain than usual, mostly in my back, neck and shoulders. That’s from last week’s “rest” time on the couch, when I had horrible posture. I felt too bad to bother with it, and I didn’t do my physical therapy exercises either, plus my physical therapist had to cancel our appointment, and now I’m paying the price for all of that.

Still, I feel so much better than I did before, that I’m managing ok. And I only have 2 medical appointments this week! My friends would think that’s a lot, but you and I know better. After weeks of having 3-5 appointments every week this is nothing! And today’s appointment was only 12 minutes away, so there wasn’t even much driving involved. I had enough energy afterwards to go grocery shopping, then I came home and had lunch.

I am now sitting in cozy clothes, catching up on email, finally writing here, and generally feeling a bit more in control of things. It feels so good! In the back of my mind I think about how I still don’t feel up to dating, so I’m putting off signing up for a new online dating app that looks interesting, and I’m intentionally not thinking about how much I want a dog and am still not able to care for one. Ok, I think about it a little. But I try. Overall, though, I feel better physically so I’m trying to focus on the good stuff and ignore all of the things I want to do and still can’t.

Hopefully this week I can get back to having some balance in my life and in my schedule and then, well, maybe I can catch up on the many things I didn’t get to do over the last couple of weeks. After all, sick or not, some things still have to be done.

*In case you’re wondering about the iron, my doctor wants me to try taking a small dose. I was already taking 1/2 the recommended amount. We’ll see. About 5 years ago I had to have iron infusions because I couldn’t tolerate supplements. I was hoping to avoid that this time around, but no luck. I’m anemic so if the supplements don’t work, I’ll have to do the infusions again. But that’s a problem to deal with next week. For now, I’m focusing on getting back to “normal.”


Am I losing my joints?

July 30, 2018

First it was my wrists. Then my knees. Then my fingers and then my toes. Every few years some new joints began to hurt. Until this year.

Suddenly, all at once, things are doing downhill fast. In the past several months I have developed pain in my feet, thumbs, and shoulders. The foot pain is from arthritis, and it is especially disturbing because I had x-rays done 3 years ago that were fine. In only 3 years there has been marked deterioration and we don’t know why. The thumb pain is from tendonitis, something I’ve never had before. We don’t even know about the shoulder pain yet.

A few months ago, none of these bothered me at all. Now, walking has become more painful than ever, my favorite hobbies of crocheting and knitting are extremely limited, reaching for things is painful, picking anything up hurts, sleeping is harder, and I am freaking out.

Why is this happening all at once?!? Well-meaning friends suggest that it’s weather-related, but I know my body, and it’s not that simple. And besides, let’s say it’s the weather for the sake of argument. How does that help me? That only means that for months every year I’ll be in extra pain? And over time, as the climate continues to change, it will only get worse. So that’s NOT reassuring. Besides, it’s not weather-related. The tendonitis could be, but that began before the heat and humidity set in. And weather did not cause the arthritis in my feet or the bone spurs that are developing.

I keep wondering: how much worse will this get?

For years I have assumed that eventually all of my joints would be come painful, but I expected things to continue in that every-other-year pattern. I would have been in my 50s before things got really widespread. Now, in my 30s, I’m seeing the progression and it ain’t pretty. What will happen if I can’t use my thumbs? How will I function? What if walking becomes even more difficult? What if what if what if?

What ifs aren’t helpful, but I’m only human, and I can’t help but think about it. I’m following doctors’ orders: stop standing on my toes, limit crocheting and knitting, do handy therapy exercises, wear new orthodics…. but it’s not helping. At least, not yet. And besides, the goals with those are to lessen the pain. The doctors agree that this new pain will be permanent. And that makes it extra difficult when well-meaning friends hear about what’s happening and say that hopefully it will go away. When I say it won’t, that this is permanent, they get uncomfortable. They want to offer reassurances but there are none to offer. I get that. I’m the same way when someone I care about is hurting. Still, it sucks that people keep suggesting it will get better. Haven’t they learned? ALL of my pain is permanent. Sometimes it improves, but it never goes away.

Today is a calm day. Last week I was so upset that I couldn’t even write about this. I’m sure I will have many more calm days and many more upset days. In the meantime, I need to find some rational, logical part of my brain to start figuring out why my joints are suddenly causing me pain so much more quickly than they used to. Then maybe, just maybe, I might stand a chance at slowing things down.


I wish I could stop my fake smile

July 21, 2018

Even at 12 years old, I knew not to milk my situation. If I exaggerated the pain I was in, cried unnecessarily, or complained too much, it would come back to bite me in the butt later. I was right, of course. Even without all of the theatrics, some doctors and teachers suggested my pain wasn’t real, that I was just trying to get attention. Assholes. The thing is, this idea that I shouldn’t exaggerate anything boomeranged, and soon I was pretending I was ok even when I wasn’t.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. For me, faking it until I make it can help. And I hate having people constantly ask me what’s wrong, so looking like nothing is wrong can help to prevent that.

But then, sometimes it’s not so good.

Today a friend stopped by unexpectedly. I was NOT in a good place. I’ll probably right about that another time, but basically, I’m in rough shape. The pain has been worse lately, and it’s spreading to more parts of my body for some unknown reason. I’m worried about the future. I might have to move out of the apartment that I love. I’m frustrated and overwhelmed and, mostly, very scared.

I started to talk about some of this with my friend. I could feel the start of tears in my eyes. But I didn’t want to get too far down the rabbit hole. If I tried to explain everything, it would just lead me to focus more on the thing I’m trying to get off my mind for a while. So I said I needed to stop talking about it. And a second later we had changed the subject and I found myself smiling.

Now don’t get me wrong, smiling is a good thing, especially when you’re happy. But I wasn’t happy. I was smiling because I am used to plastering that smile on my face, even when I don’t want to. It’s what made the LTD and SSDI trials so hard: I was supposed to let them see how I really felt, and I didn’t know how to do that anymore. After so many years of fake smiles, how could I stop?

Before my friend showed up, I was definitely not smiling. I wasn’t smiling after he left, either. But with him here, I smiled. I thought to myself, “I should stop smiling. He knows I’m scared and in pain and he’ll be here for me. I want to stop.” But I couldn’t.

When my grandmother died just a few years ago, I cried during the funeral. Later, at the shiva (a Jewish tradition where friends and family gather to console the bereaved) I found myself smiling a lot. One relative I didn’t know very well even commented on how great it was that I could focus on the good parts of my grandmother’s life and remain so cheerful. Little did he know. I wasn’t cheerful. It was an act. I was smiling, I had a bounce in my voice, and I was miserable.

My fake smile was helpful today at the grocery store. I looked and acted normal, so no one asked any questions. But with my family and friends, sometimes I want to stop smiling.

If only I knew how.


Feeling too disabled to protest

June 29, 2018

Like in many cities around the country, there will be a big protest in Boston tomorrow, and I won’t be there. Not because I don’t want to be there, but because my health stops me.

At first I thought I might borrow a wheelchair like I did a couple weeks ago for the Pride parade. A friend even said she’d push the chair, and I really appreciated that. That spark of hope lasted for about 45 seconds. Then I remembered the weather forecast.

Until now, we have had surprisingly not-horrible-by-my-standards weather for this time of year. But that ended this week. And tomorrow is supposed to be the worst of them all: 97 degrees and a dew point that the forecasters are calling “oppressive.” The thing is, I struggle when the dew point is what everyone else considers reasonable, so you can imagine how well I do when it’s “oppressive”! For me, that means difficulty breathing, lots of sweating, my already suffering adrenals struggling even more to do their job, more pain than usual, etc. I could end up suffering not just for a day or two. I could have a major health setback. So I can’t go.

I would like to participate in some other substantial way. I can’t donate to funds, since my income doesn’t even support my own expenses.

So I do what I can. I post a lot on social media to make people aware. I don’t know how many people are actually seeing what I post, or how many care, or how many didn’t already know what I’m posting about, but if I get even one person to vote this fall who wouldn’t otherwise, then it’s worth it.

I am trying to humanize the situation for my friends and acquaintances. For most of them, Trump’s and the GOP’s policies are horrible, but don’t affect anyone they know. I’m trying to show them that isn’t true.

Of course, this is harder because I won’t post on social media about being on SSDI or food stamps. My “real” friends know, but I don’t want to share that online. Still, I do talk about how my health insurance is at risk, and the real consequences that could bring for me. I talk about not being about to work, about being queer, about being Jewish, about being a woman, and how these policies will affect me because of those various aspects of myself.

It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

I feel incredibly frustrated and yes, even angry, that I can’t protest tomorrow. Over and over I have had to miss out on these protests. Instead, I am trying to remind myself that maybe what I am doing is helping in some small way.

And in that vein, dear reader, let me ask you to please vote! I know that many of you aren’t in the U.S. but I’m guessing it’s important for you to vote, too. And for those of you in the U.S. with chronic illness, it is especially important for you to look at who is going to be on your ballot this November and what their policies are. Our lives are at risk. We are facing limits to healthcare access, cuts to social security as well as medicare and medicaid, not to mention cuts to food stamps and housing services. There is so much more that I could say, but I will just mention these few things that on their own should worry us all. This November we will see many seats in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate up for grabs, and it’s important to vote in folks who will fight for us, not hurt us. At the same time, many governors’ seats will be voted on, as well as other state and local seats, and those are also super important. If you ever want to learn more about any of this, just let me know and I will be glad to discuss it.

Either way, if you are in the U.S. then put November 6, 2018 on your calendar and be sure to vote! And if you won’t be able to get to your polling station, contact your town or city hall well in advance to get an absentee ballot. You can vote from home!

Even if, like me, you can’t get out to protest in person, you can protest with your ballot. Let’s do this!


%d bloggers like this: